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From Max Payne to Zeus: How Narration in Games Helps Developers Get Creative

Exploring the unique storytelling and gameplay benefits of video game narration.

It’s a concept as old as stories, but in games, you can mostly trace the use of a narrator back to a trio of indies released around the start of the last decade. In 2011’s Bastion, you were a little guy running around as your actions were described by a disembodied cowboy voice, thick with the essence of whiskey and chew. In Dear Esther, you explored an island as an anonymous man told you a story, his voice thick with the strains of sorrow and regret.

“That’s not how it happened,” you might say, echoing the Prince’s commentary in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. And you would be right. Games had occasionally featured narrators before the indie explosion of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. But, as indie games rose to prominence, so too did voiced narration as a storytelling device. And, arguably, The Stanley Parable is where the trend peaked. Davey Wreden and William Pugh’s first-person adventure game presented players with a Gordian Knot of ludonarrative dissonance and harmony. It was a game where players could choose to obey or disobey the disembodied voice guiding the titular Stanley through a nondescript (and, occasionally non-Euclidean) office building.

The Stanley Parable features an unreliable narrator that players choose to obey or disobey. 

Larger games have featured narration too, including the gruff voice of actor James McCaffrey guiding players through the stories of Max Payne and the unreliable narrator Varric Tethras in Dragon Age II, but inclusions such as these have historically been few and far between. Lately, however, the trend has grown. The past year has seen the release of Maneater, Immortals Fenyx Rising, and Biomutant. Narration in these big, open games pushes back against the isolation inherent in the large, often sparsely populated worlds they present. When your killer shark flops across a beach in Maneater, taking chunks out of every landlubber in her path, actor Chris Parnell is ready to provide error-filled context for your senseless violence. When you stop to chat with an unimportant NPC in Biomutant, their dialogue will still be relayed to you in the David Attenborough-ish voice of David Shaw Parker. Travel to the end of the map in Immortals, and Zeus and Prometheus will still be there, bickering away.

But what problems are these omnipresent disembodied voices designed to solve? What video game tropes does the narrator subvert? And what challenges does narration create for the developers tasked with making it a seamless part of their virtual worlds? To answer those questions, we spoke with the writers, voice actors, and audio designers who have worked hard to write, voice, and implement narration into games like Immortals Fenyx Rising, Maneater, and Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy.

Talking to Myself, Not Talking At All

If a narrator is speaking, it may be because someone else isn’t.

If you’ve played video games, you’ve likely played a silent protagonist. In the medium’s early decades, game characters often didn’t speak because of technical limitations. Lines of voiced dialogue would take up ridiculous amounts of space on an arcade cabinet’s motherboard or an NES cartridge. As a result, if a character did talk, it was only in a brief, scratchy sound byte. Though Pokémon have always said their names in the anime, their video game equivalents in Red and Blue communicated in cries so tightly compressed you would be forgiven for thinking you were trying to catch 151 dial-up modems. As compact discs became widely used, though, those limitations largely disappeared — but the silent protagonist, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, lives on through popular characters like Link and Mario.

Though game protagonists have often been gratuitously silent, there are times when reticence makes narrative sense. While working on Maneater, the developers at Tripwire Interactive wanted to create a game that felt like a gonzo, hyper-violent take on a nature documentary. And despite the rest of the liberties they took with reality, a talking shark didn’t fit the tone they were going for.

“With no verbal interactions and just a handful of sporadic cutscenes, we needed a way to continuously communicate the narrative,” wrote Maneater’s audio director Mark Muraski and lead narrative designer Matt Entin via an email to Fanbyte. “A game where players are unprovokedly attacking hundreds of innocent people could get dark fast. Finding a way to add humor, motivation, and a voice for the shark was imperative. Chris Parnell had this incredible ability to sell the concept that ‘we have met the enemy and he is us,’ meaning humanity and our effect on the environment. It’s what allowed players to feel entirely justified taking out an inflatable unicorn full of terrified drunken tourists.”

In Maneater, adding a narrator helped developer Tripwire Interactive find an appropriate tone for the story.

Sometimes, there are other reasons developers opt for a silent protagonist. Genital Jousting’s story mode follows John, a penis attempting to attain a life he won’t be embarrassed about in time for his high school reunion. Jon Keevy, who worked as a writer on the game, says that talking penises were not a viable option. “We tried out characters talking but it didn’t move on to implementation because of two reasons: dicks speaking look unsettling. And it slowed down the fun part of the game — the fumble-core interaction with the world.” But, as John goes about his day-to-day activities, such as showing up at his boring office job, working out, going on a shopping spree, the team at developer Free Lives needed a way to communicate the story, as well as John’s thoughts and motivations. 

The team opted to bring in Robyn Scott as the narrator. Scott said she spent between four and six months working on the project. Much of that time was focused on finding the right tone for the narration; one that was dry, but able to sell the humor of a game about anthropomorphic penises. “It was a little bit of play and improvisation and us figuring out what the right tone for the narrator was and then putting that voice to the game,” Scott says. Constant iteration meant returning to the drawing board frequently as they tested out different ideas. But once they hit eureka moments, it all would come together “relatively quickly.” 

“Robyn has a wonderful range,” Keey says. “She had a posh sophistication that made a great contrast to the penises, and she was able to subtly color her performance with sympathy, humor, [and] annoyance as required. We also loved having this pervasive female presence in the story that was otherwise so dick-centered. It helped us disengage the penises from an obvious gendering into something more interesting and less straight-forward.”

Framing the Action

Narrators can play a key role in shaping how players understand and engage with a game. While working on his ultra-challenging, finicky platformer
Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy, Foddy realized that narration would be crucial in communicating the work’s themes. Getting Over It’s “trash” aesthetic and punishing difficulty were intentional, and Foddy wanted to guide players into a meditation on the disposability of games and the necessity of failure.

“As I started building it, it became clear to me that this high concept stuff wasn’t going to be accessible to the player without something to explain it overtly, partly because there are a lot of games that use those aesthetics by default, like it’s the low-rent aesthetic,” Foddy says. “And partly because if a game is really hard or frustrating, the player tends to assume this is by accident rather than design. So, I couldn’t see any way to convey this stuff other than by literally explaining it.”

Foddy feels a narrator, “like liner notes or a museum placard with an artist’s statement,” has a unique influence on the audience’s interpretation of a piece. “I think generally using that power detracts from the coolness of creative work, because really confident work can rely on the audience to find and extract meanings in the work without having their hand held.” 

He is also conscious of how overt explanations can undermine a player’s satisfaction in reading the work on their own. As an Assistant Arts Professor at NYU’s Game Center, he often has his students play Rod Humble’s art game The Marriage on their own, then replay it after reading Humble’s exhaustive artist’s statement. He does this to “show how impossible it is to escape mentally and emotionally from the influence of reading a statement like that.”

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As Foddy notes, narrators can provide too much information and egregiously break the famous writers’ maxim: show, don’t tell. But, in some cases, it’s not a question of showing versus telling. Instead, it’s a question of deciding who should do the telling. For the team behind Ubisoft’s Immortals Fenyx Rising, an open-world game set in the realm of Greek myth, the inclusion of a narrator made sense as a nod to the classical Greek oral tradition. It also allowed the team to skirt more traditional and, at times, intrusive ways of relaying necessary information to the player.

“[Often in games], the main character talks to themself to give the player clues about things that are happening or to respond to things that the player does in the world,” Jeffrey Yohalem, Immortals’ narrative director and lead writer, says. “Like ‘I don’t have the key for this door yet’ or, ‘I should come back at another time and explore this space.’ And a lot of that is very artificial because we don’t talk to ourselves like that in reality. And so, in Immortals, the narrators get to talk about that and it’s much more natural. And, because it’s a comedy, it allows there to be an exchange, based on what the player is doing, in a funny way between the two narrators.”

Narration in Immortals: Fenyx Rising blurs the line between player and character, so you become an active part of the story’s comedy.

In Immortals, the player becomes a participant in the comedy, with their action serving as a set-up for the narrators’ punchline. William Pugh, who co-developed the standalone version of The Stanley Parable with Davey Wreden, talked through the logistics of how that relationship between player and narrator works on a technical level.

“You walk through a trigger and we tell a dialogue line to play,” Pugh says. “I’d like to say it’s so simple it feels easy, but really, there are so many aspects to even the simple things that we just take for granted in every large game. Stuff like, should this dialogue line be queued or cut off any existing line that is playing? How do we show subtitles if more than one character is speaking at a time? It can even go up to marking specific points in dialogue for ‘cut offs’ to happen, so you don’t slice halfway through a word, but we don’t do that because at some point, you just need to chill out and hope gamers will understand.”

Ultimately, good narration (and good design) comes down to the same tension. It may be tempting to over-explain. But, at some point, it becomes a matter of trust. Just because a Blu-ray disc can fit as much audio as developers could ever hope to include doesn’t mean it has to. Narrators are one tool in the toolbox, and skilled developers have the wisdom to know when to use them.

About the Author

Andrew King

Andrew King is a writer and museum caretaker living in Illinois. His work has also been featured at GameSpot, IGN and Polygon.